Jeremy Bendik-Keymer with Misty Morrison
For half a year, we’ve met to consider the loss of moral relationships. We meet every two weeks, give or take a week if events intervene. It’s usually Sunday night. Tonight, it’s Saturday, because tomorrow night is my father’s 82nd birthday. Our preferred place is Prosperity Social Club back by the iron-keg fire. Tonight, we’re at Banter by the open window in the back room, Detroit shore-way outside in a state of reconstruction. Once we met at the Bottlehouse, but the crowd was loud and we were not feeling it. It was New Year’s Eve on the early side. Another time, we met at Le Petit Triangle, almost no one there – just a couple under a low-hanging lamp and then, right before we left, a group of four celebrating something with a bottle of champagne. Sometimes, all we do is talk; sometimes we write in silence and then read what we wrote out loud to each other; and sometimes Misty sketches. Once we exchanged notebooks and wrote in each other’s notebooks down half the page, column-ing. We’re clueless about what we are doing, but we look forward to it, each meeting.
How did we decide to start this practice and what is the purpose of it, really? We started because we had been visited by Kyle Powys Whyte in October. He gave the Beamer-Schneider Lecture in Ethics & Civics at Case Western Reserve University. He lectured about what it is to preserve a future that is indigenous and explained his concept of “collective continuance.” At the heart of his lecture was the idea of seasonal forms of sovereignty -a notion completely foreign to modern European thought about the state. With each season and each different ecological niche, a different form of sovereignty, led by different elders in the community, should take hold for the nations (formerly) of the Great Lakes (with populations forcibly relocated out West over a century ago). To lead in these regimes, the leaders of the season have to show that they can uphold many moral relationships -of trust, utility, reciprocity, honor, care, and respect. Braidings of relationship spread out from seasonal rotations in shifting ecologies matched by shifting economies, with distributed role structures fit to each. I was left following his visit feeling the poverty of moral relationships in neoliberal capitalism, itself settler colonial, and told Misty about it.
We’d been involved in a project at SPACES Gallery on the right to safety. The artist Michael Rakowitz had been coming to town to urge white people in Cleveland to abandon the color orange as a gesture of solidarity with Tamir Rice who held a toy gun with the orange tip removed. He saw the ritual as a way of focusing on the unequal and unjust distribution of the right to safety. As we all know, black and white, the distribution is toward white people and wealthier neighborhoods, away from black bodies and lower-income neighborhoods. These neighborhoods were formerly red-lined in Cleveland, creating what is today a “space of urban violation” – as my class on environmental politics coined the term – not just a space of “urban violence.” Rakowitz and SPACES want to draw attention to the distribution of safety by reallocating orange from mostly white, male, CIS, and wealthy-enough people’s lives to SPACES Gallery this summer. There, surrounded by this displaced privilege, people can talk about what it all means and how it feels to have a city where safety is part of life for all.
The project was, to Misty and me, an enactment of the loss of moral relationships in our society, including when ambivalently classy arts institutions and their heralds of art are funded, situated to relate to impoverished and racialized communities from out of areas like “Hingetown” (the deliberately marketed name of an intensively “bro-ifying” part of Ohio City (“bro-ifying” is anthropologist Shannon Lee Dawdy’s name for the precursor to gentrification in many U.S. cities attracting Millennials)). The project was folded around itself multiple times, seeking relationships yet always coming up against race and class, i.e., the space of colonial violation in the United States of America.
SPACES, an institution we like especially for its public educational gestures and programs, is in a tough spot, like most arts institutions, it seems. And it endeavors spiritedly to overcome its limitations and to serve the public in Cleveland. The project with Rakowitz, like Whyte visiting a private educational institution built on the vast monies of Cleveland industrialization and a settler colonial geography (the “Western Reserve”), reveals uncomfortably for itself, the dishonesty in our society and its institutional and geographic arrangement. Liberty and justice are not for all. You might think that there’s little to do that could do anything else than be this dishonesty, in some gradation of embarrassment, awareness and masochism. But there is another choice, head to the ground, working: we can be purposeful, like a tributary leading to a river.
The thing lost in symbolic gesture, thereby absorbed in structural inequality, is purposeful organization toward the common good. That organization begins in a project by which a society internalizes its unintended and harmful effects on others while respecting and protecting everyone in it, their capabilities included. It persists in a project of moral restoration. On their best days, this is exactly the kind of organizing rationale by which art institutions arrange themselves. It’s what you read in grant applications and what staff commonly believe about the course of their life and its purpose: we work for the common good. We are restoring society against its history of violence. We own our shit. We are protecting the human and the more than human. We empower people. We respect everyone’s capacity for judgment.
But it is hard to be an artist or an educator in neoliberalism. Educators have it easier, since there are structures in place to remind us of our storied justifications: some public institutions such as schools and libraries, some salaried and collegiate practices that house memories of community and visions of other than profiteering purpose. Artists languish in their lone and unsupported state, cast to the world to hustle while suggesting they disclose an unseen brilliance in the grey day. Meanwhile, the new working class of adjunct and part-time teachers seek health insurance and a living wage, while artists spend the waking hours on Instagram, just as exposed and working odd jobs.
As Wendy Brown showed so well in Undoing the Demos, the first thing lost in neoliberalism is the mother of all purpose winding its way through life. As Aristotle first articulated theoretically at the dawn of action theory in the Greek philosophical tradition, purpose shapes our being. I do V in order to do W, and I support W in order to realize X; that X for the sake of Y; where the point of Y is Z. Like this: Misty and I (S) meet every two weeks in order to (T) build a study space into our life together, and we do this so that we can begin to (U) use our capacities and strengths, the point there being to (V) create text and image to (W ) share with our community as best we can; thereby, wanting to (X) take part in our community, thus to (Y) do some of our part, so as to (Z) respond to where we live and with whom we live from out of the core ways we each relate to life.
But in neoliberalism, where we must hustle toward the next month’s rent and think that we must be seen within the micro-niches of social media, thereby to create a buzz to help surround our island of work with the impression of value, the simple thing often lost is what the Greeks called the teleology -from telos, goal. Living along the Cuyahoga, I call it, as I said, “the river.” Against neoliberalism, we must keep the goal in view: the common good.
Misty has been working on her next installation. It will be in Braddock, Pennsylvania, across from the U.S. Steel Plant in Unsmoke Systems, that heterodox community space Pittsburghers who relate to parts of life through contemporary art know. Like much plant life in her regional climate, what Misty makes will flourish in July, growing across a month.
At Unsmoke Systems, Misty will restore, partially, her grandma Em’s house. For Misty, Em was the matriarch and the root of home.
How do you restore a home that is lost, encountering and absorbing the loss? How can grieving be a form of giving? Misty will tape out the floorplan of the entire house in Unsmoke’s voluminous ground-floor space. Within Unsmoke’s high ceilings; dirty, enormous windows, and patchy walls, she’ll then frame several of the walls with 2x4s and two, even, with drywall. She will place the kitchen table and chairs her family inherited from the house in their would-be, former location, and she’ll line the drywall with two strata of informal photographs. The first stratum will show the emptying of Em’s home after her death some years ago. Then, the second stratum will show, from similar angles as shown in the first stratum, the reconstruction-for-new-occupants of the house. Seeing similar perspectives on its space, we’ll see the house emptying and then reforming. The photographs will be mounted along the framing and drywalls so that they show the perspective you would actually see if you were in the house as you are on the floorplan. Finally, on the table will be a photo album: reproduced photos from the ‘80s and 1990s when Misty’s family visited Em’s home for cook-outs, child-care, holidays, and gatherings. The original photos are held in Misty’s hand, then taken again, reproduced, thus being edged slightly by “now.” Misty learned this technique from Chloë Bass’s work at SPACES in 2015, one diptych of which hangs in our bedroom next to where we sleep and, often agitatedly, dream.
At the start of July, Misty will take off work for a week, leaving the accounting firm where she works to have a stable, living wage. After setting up the floorplan, the walls, the furniture, and the photos, she’ll hold the opening. Then, for the week, she will be in Unsmoke Systems for whomever from the surrounding communities wants to visit. She plans to let local schools and community organizations know. She’ll be asking people who want to come by to consider bringing a memory of home with them. If they want, she will take their photograph and then draw it over the remaining weeks. At the end of the month, she will hold a closing where, around the outer walls of Unsmoke Systems, the drawings next to the photos will present. Then, at closing, the people who chose to be photographed and drawn can take home the drawings of themselves if they want to do so. They will be theirs. Misty calls this July installation, “the family system.”
Last year, Misty gave me a portrait I love. It is called “Peonies.” The peonies shaping its background are the same that were in her grandmother’s yard – and which are now transplanted into our own out back by the summer porch where we have friends and family over in the cricket sound, windows all open to the night.
Peonies, Misty tells me, often live for hundreds of years. They are, bitterly, memories of the settlers who colonized this land. But they are also indigenous to the lands North and far West of here along the Pacific Ocean.
All Images provided by the author(s).